Mindfulness (sati) literally means memory to maintain awareness. Other words such as recollection, recognition, wakefulness, alertness, awareness, meditation, concentration, reflection and recollection are also used to interpret mindfulness.
Satipatthana Sutta mentions mindfulness as ‘a practice with four distinct phases ranging from mindfulness of bodily sensations to awareness of mental processes refining attention and awareness to one of deep analytical probing and insight.’
As mentioned in the Pali Canon, samatha and vipassana are two qualities of mind developed in the process of meditation. Samatha emphasises on calming the mind while vipassana emphasises on understanding the insight. Vipassana can generate wisdom only with developing mental focus through samatha.
Practitioners of different traditions of Buddhism and researcher have debated and tried to explain and prove true nature mindfulness based on their views and findings. Although the debate continuous today, it is generally accepted in secular context as a ‘non-judgmental awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations’ at the contemporary world.
Notwithstanding the variance in interpretation, all agree that the ultimate goal of mindfulness is not just putting an end to suffering but to attain the nibbana, the liberation. The goal of mindfulness is achieved only in conjunction with wisdom (panna) and ethics. Mindfulness is integrated in to one of the core essence of Buddhism, The Four Noble Truths.
Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths (cattari ariyasaccani). The Four Noble Truths are:
- suffering (dukkha),
- origin of suffering (samudaya),
- cessation of the origin of suffering (nirodha) and,
- the path to cessation of the origins of suffering (magga) which is the Noble Eightfold Paths that leads to liberation (nibbana).
The four truths are presented in the Tipitaka situate mindfulness (sati) as one of their integral components.
Suffering: the first truth
The first truth identifies suffering (dukkha) arising from ignorance about the nature of impermanence of mental and physical phenomena (anicca) and non-satisfaction of physical and mental phenomena (dukkha) and non-existence of self (anattā).
In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the Buddha explained that all birth, ageing, death are suffering. Being together with unloved ones, being separated from loved ones and not getting the desired things also suffering. To summarise, the five aggregates (pancupadanakkhandha) of grasping are suffering.
The five aggregates of grasping are the five conditions and events in mundane life. They are materiality (rupa): physical and materiality, feeling (vedana): pleasant or unpleasant cognition, the perception (sanna): sensory and mental processes that experiences and labels, the mental formations (sankhara): cognition that cognises objects, and the consciousness (vinnana): six senses recognizing their objects. Mindfulness enhances awareness on the true nature of five aggregates: impermanent in nature (anicca), non-satisfying (dukkha), and devoid of intrinsic self or identity (anatta). The Satipatthana Sutta prescribes the five aggregates of grasping ranging from physical experiences to mental formations as an area of mindfulness practice to develop awareness on the three basic truths of samsara.
Origin of suffering: the second truth
The second truth recognises the origin of suffering. The origin of the suffering is a desire or craving (tanha) that develops other cognitive processes leading to rebirth or sensual pleasures of the world. In other words, all sentient beings in this mundane world marked with suffering is a result of craving.
Further, the craving is result of ignorance which is a primary cause of rebirth in samsara. Ignorance as a cause of rebirth in samsara is explained in the Interdependent Origination (paticcasamuppada) where craving is also a part of it. The Interdependent Origination (paticcasamuppāda) is in fact the elaboration of the Second Noble Truth.
The Interdependent Origination (paticcasamuppada) consists of twelve links in ascending order as follows:
- Ignorance (avijja)
- Mental formations (saṅkhara)
- Cognition or consciousness (vinnaṇa)
- The mind and the body (namarupa)
- Sense bases (salayatana)
- Contact with objects or experiences (phassa)
- Feelings (pleasant, unpleasant or neutral (vedana)
- Craving (tanha
- Clinging (upadana)
- Being (bhava)
- Birth (jati)
- Aging and death (jaramaraṇa)
The twelve links, in ascending order, are chain of development in samsara. The former link is the cause and the latter, the result. Likewise, when links are reversed, presents the way to liberation from suffering. When one link is eradicated, the next is also eradicated.
Ignorance, the non-understanding of basic truth of the samsara: every phenomena is impermanent, subject to suffering and non-existent of self, produces mental formations. The past conditions and reactions of mental formation leads to consciousness of the six senses. The consciousness of the six senses takes place within body and mind through sense bases when it comes in contact with their object. The experiences of six sense bases coming in contact with their objects gives rise to feelings: pleasant or unpleasant. It is the stage where craving begins.
In other words, it’s the suffering as the five aggregates of grasping is present. If the mind goes onto clinging to sensual pleasures, the chain of twelve links continuous without a breakdown which means it continues to remain in samsara in the form of twelve cyclic links.
However, if the mindfulness is applied at this stage of craving, the latter links of the Interdependent Origination can be cut off and lead to the end of suffering. If mindfulness in not present, craving leads to clinging towards sensual pleasures and results in being or living, birth, ageing and death which are suffering. This suffering generates ignorance and gives rise to another cycle of the Interdependent Origination. The cycle has no end. In other words, as long as on craves, one remains in samsara which is suffering.
The only means of getting rid of this cycle of suffering is the liberation from ignorance. Mindfulness develops wisdom (panna) that reflects the nature of the twelve links in the interdependent origination and aids in attaining nibbana with the help of morality (sila).
Cessation of the origin of suffering: the third truth
The third truth explains the cessation of origins of the suffering that is always possible. It is a complete extinction of craving or abandonment of sensual pleasures that would break the chain of the Interdependent Origination.
As explained in the second truth, cessation of origin is possible through practicing mindfulness in conjunction with wisdom and morality. When the cause of suffering is eradicated, it results in cessation to craving which will result in breaking the chain of twelve links of the Interdependent Origination. This cessation of cause of suffering is equated with nibbana. Such an attainment is a state of ultimate bliss without clinging to origin of suffering but full of wholesome mental and physical qualities. In other words, cessation of origin of suffering results in end of future rebirth existence.
Path to cessation of the origins of suffering: the fourth truth
The fourth truth explains the path to achieve cessation to the origin of suffering. The ultimate goal of life is not just eradicating the negative thoughts and actions but to attain the nibbana. To attain nibbana, the Noble Eightfold paths are to be followed:
- Right View (sammāditthi)
- Right Intention (sammāsaṅkappa)
- Right Speech (sammāvācā),
- Right Action (sammākammanta)
- Right Livelihood (sammāājīva)
- Right Effort (sammāvāyāma)
- Right Mindfulness (sammāsati)
- Right Concentration(sammāsamādhi)
The Right View
The Right View (sammāditthi) is understanding the clear insight of the Four Noble Truths or the three basic phenomena of samsara: impermanence (annica), non-self (antta) and suffering (dukkha).
Without understanding the three basic phenomena of samsara, there is no room for development of morality and mindfulness.
The Right Intention
With the Right View or understanding, the Right Intention (sammāsaṅkappa) is an initial application of the knowledge after understanding the Four Noble Truths. It is a resolve to peaceful renunciation of mundane world and develop wholesome mental states.
The Right Speech, the Right Action and the Right Livelihood
The Right Speech (sammāvācā), the Right Action (sammākammanta) and the Right Livelihood (sammāājīva) emphasize on the eradicating speech and actions that are not harmful to oneself or other beings. Instead it encourages one to cultivate wholesome mental states such as loving kindness (metta) to self and to others (Husgafvel 2016, p. 99). Loving kindness is one of the important component of mindfulness.
The Right Effort
The Right Effort (sammā vāyāma) develops determination, perseverance and energy in following the Noble Eightfold Paths by maintaining ethical (kusala) mental states.
The Right Mindfulness and the Right Concentration
The Right Mindfulness (sammāsati) and the Right Concentration or (sammā samādhi) form a basis of Buddhist meditation. It focus on a chosen object of contemplation, leading to deep states of absorption (jhāna).
To summarise, the Noble Eightfold Paths are divided in to three sections: Wisdom (pannā), ethics (sīla) and meditation (samādhi). Wisdom, awareness of the Four Noble truth, is represented by right view and right intention. Ethics, non-harming actions to self and others, is represent by right speech, right action and right livelihood. Finally, the meditation is the actual path that leads to nibbana. It is presented by right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
As meditation is the actual practical application of all the Buddhist doctrines and last stage to attain nibbana, many forms of meditation are developed.
Samatha and Vipassana are major forms of meditation in Theravada tradition based on Tipitaka Pali Canon. Samatha emphasises on calming the mind while vipassana emphasises on freeing the mind from defilements and attaining higher spiritual development (Tan 2013, p. 5-6).
Mahayana’s Pure Land, Chan, Zen traditions founded on principles of samatha and vipassana practise meditation by repeatedly chanting the name of Buddha Amitabha. By chanting his name repeatedly, vocally or mentally, with or without beads, one is believed to gain the attention of Buddha Amitabha and ultimately take rebirth in pure land.
Vajrayana Buddhists include all form of techniques of Theravada and Mahayana meditation with addition of Hindu Tantric methods that are ritualistic and considered esoteric.
To summarise, mindfulness aids in comprehension of clear wisdom on three basic truth of existence: all phenomena in the existence are suffering, impermanent and devoid of self. Then it cultivates an effort to end suffering and rebirth in samsara and leads to nibbana through meditation. Without mindfulness, even the secular goal of human life cannot be achieved.